Thursday, January 1, 2009

Lost in translation - Di Grine Kuzine (The Greenhorn Cousin) in Yiddish and English

The working title for my next podcast is The Story Show. My plan is to focus on songs with strong narratives that come out of various aspects of the Jewish experience. Oh, and the songs should be in English. I'll explain that constraint another time, but I acknowledge that it's a problematic one for a lot of reasons. It is pushing me to search in interesting corners of Jewish music, though. One of my recent searches was to see if anyone had recorded the Yiddish classic "Di Grine Kuzine (The Greenhorn Cousin)" in English. Answer: Absolutely. But what I found was at that the moment in 1942 that a mainstream American musician (Benny Goodman, with vocalist Peggy Lee) wanted to take on the song the lyrics were substantially rewritten. I'm not a good historian, so I'm on shaky ground speculating about why the verses were re-written. Some obvious candidates, though, include the fact that the United States was in the middle of World War II and that non-patriotic verses would have been a big problem and the changing self-image of American Jews at that time.

The original song lyric, translation courtesy of the Zemerl archive, was a classic frustrated immigrant song. In it the singer's starry-eyed cousin arrives from Europe looking for the American dream.

"A girl cousin arrived, a greenhorn,
Beautiful as gold she was
Cheeks red as oranges
Tiny feet, just made for dancing. "

The cousin, once confronted by the realities of life in America, grows bitter about her new home.

"But, as the years passed by
My cousin went downhill
From working hard week after week
Nothing remained but a wreck.

Today, as I meet her in the street
And I ask: How's everything, Greenhorn?
She just sighs and I read in her eye:
To hell with Columbus' paradise! "

This progression is typical of not only of many Yiddish immigrant songs, but of immigrant songs in general. For example, The contemporary Los Angeles-based American Latino group Ozomatli has a similar lyric in their song "(Who Discovered) America " (lyrics courtesy of All The Lyrics.)

The song begins...
"I heard her story from across the sea,
There was never one as fair, lovely as she.
With sun soaked skin and eyes of green,
with all kindness and grace of a queen."

and ends

"How could I've know I'd been hypnotized.
There was more to my queen than first met the eye.
She had a chain of lovers who died her slaves
With a notion of blood for every drop that she gave."

Getting back to Di Grine Kusine, the song has been recored many times using the original Yiddish lyrics. Here's a raucus contemporary version of the song performed by the outstanding Danish band Klezmofobia. As best I can follow the Yiddish, the band is sticking nicely to the original lyric. (Any Yiddish speakers want to verify that?)

Klezmofobia - Grine Kusine

While this story of the difficulties of immigration was immensely popular to an earlier generation of American Jews, it wasn't what got presented to war-time American ears by Benny Goodman and Peggy Lee. Their lyric, which you can listen to in the recording below, looses the immigrant frustration with America and focuses on the romantic tensions between an inexperienced young woman and her equally fumbling suitor. Here's the Goodman / Lee renamed and rewritten version.

My Little Cousin - Benny Goodman & Peggy Lee

I've had no trouble finding more contemporary recordings of musicians following the original Yiddish lyrics, the Klezmofobia version for example. I've also had no trouble finding musicians following the Goodman / Lee version. Here's a live video of Paul Shaprio and his Ribs and Brisket Revue playing My Little Cousin from his album Essen.

"My Little Cousin" by Paul Shapiro's Ribs and Brisket Revue

What I haven't been able to find is anyone singing a translation of the original Yiddish lyric in English. Again, while I don't know why that is I'm not shy about speculating. One answer might be that someone has and I just haven't searched hard enough. Another might be that the Klezmer and Yiddish revival movements have generally focused on the use of authentic Yiddish, not on the use of in-authentic English translations. As I've noted elsewhere, while I approve of this focus I am also sometimes frustrated by it. A lot of our cultural history is locked up in languages (Yiddish and Ladio) that are not spoken by many contemporary Jews. Getting more Jews to speak these languages is a noble adventure that I'm sure will yield some limited success. But with Israel adopting Hebrew as it's nation lanaguage, it seems unlikely that Yiddish or Ladino will every play a significant role again. Keep the songs in their original helps us hold onto our cultural history in one way. But I would personally love to see more effort made to develop singable translations of Yiddish and Ladino songs to help unlock some of this history in another way.

Hat tip to YouTube users Heimdal4 for the Klezmofobia video and Brandibb for the Benny Goodman video.


timohuatl said...

Like your article. Evo Bluestein's family performs a yiddish english version that has a good translation of the yiddish. Contact Evo at

Jack said...

Thanks...I'll do that.

Michael Robin said...

Daniel Khan and the painted bird often records old yiddish songs singing the yiddish and the english one after another and sometimes even russian--he's more radical, however, lots of workers' songs and some Jewish Bund-era stuff like "oy, ir narishe tsienistn". The band Golem does a version of Papirosen with both yiddish and english but the english comes off a bit campy--they do a lot of other great yiddish stuff as well with more of a punk edge.

michael robin said...

whooops! you alright know about those guys don't you--either way very nice blog.

Jack said...

Hi Michael. I sure do know about them. I actually got a chance to see Daniel Kahn and talk to him a bit a few weeks ago. But thanks for the comments regardless. I saw your name links over to WZRD Chicago. Do you DJ this kind of music there?

Michael Robin said...

WZRD is actually a freeform station so each dj plays a wide range of genres but I do find myself constantly coming back to yiddishkeit. I'm very into yiddish as well as gypsy, and russian music--especially modern takes on them and historical exploration- as with all the great bands nowadays that are taking old yiddish theater/folk songs and re-introducing us to them.

Safran said...

I am trying to find the original Yiddish lyrics and sheet music of the Di Grine Kuzine. Do you know of any online sources?

Anonymous said...

You can find an accurate Yiddish text of "Di Grine Kuzine" -- in Yiddish alphabet and in transliteration -- with musical notation in Eleanor Gordon Mlotek's _Mir Trogn a Gezang_. (The content of the song is only roughly and incompletely summarized in English.) This book has also been published as _Favorite Yiddish Songs_. I just learned this song recently. Its bouncy rhythm and dark story are pure "laughter through tears." The three verses from the Zemerl archive are translated extremely well, which is rare. I know Yiddish and usually groan at the translations of Yiddish songs I come across. The complete song has six verses. Very interesting blog! I've been learning Yiddish songs for a year and a half and it's a great way to strengthen your knowledge of Yiddish.